St Giles has a rich and interesting history, including the building itself and the people connected with it. St. Giles’ Church dates back to A.D. 1086. Originally its situation was outside Oxford’s city boundaries, in common with other churches dedicated to this patron saint of outcasts and beggars.
Full History: “St Giles’ Oxford Yesterday and Today”
by Leslie Wood June 1974
The Story of the Parish of St Giles’ – Our Patron Saint
Many churches dedicated to St Giles, the gentle saint, stand outside the walls of busy medieval cities, as though seeking the silence that he found in his own cave in the 7th century, but all too often, as in the case of Oxford, the rapid growth of our towns has engulfed these silent places, and our St Giles’ today is poised between the suburbs and the city itself.
Little is known of St Giles, called Aegidius in the Latin records, except that he may have been a Greek who came to France and established himself as a hermit in about 683 AD in the impenetrable forests at the mouth of the Rhône, where his reputation for sanctity led Benedictines later to build the great monastery of St Gilles du Gard on the pilgrimage route from Arles to St James of Compostella in Spain at the end of the 12th century.
In representations of the saint, he is accompanied by a hind which had fled to him for protection from a Royal huntsman. By a strange turn of circumstances he then became the patron saint of beggars and lepers, the flotsam and jetsam of humanity that haunt the market square and the town gate.
The Site of the Church
The earliest 12th century church that was raised on this site may well have received its dedication from the revival of interest in the saint from those who returned with their palmers’ shells from the pilgrimages to those shrines.
But there is the interesting question of why there should be two 12th century churches, St Giles’ and St Mary Magdalen, so close together in the territory north of the city wall, for there was no secular building beyond the wall, except for Beaumont Palace away to the west, until the City Council in the time of Elizabeth I bought up the manorial rights from Walton Manor and let out the land on lease for private building. All that can be surmised is that there may have been an ancient track leading out of the city at the North gate and going to join the Roman roads in the Midland shires.
Be that as it may, it is known from the Domesday Survey of 1086 that Alwyn Godgoose owned the land to the north and beyond the city on which shortly after the Norman Conquest he had proposed to build a church in the Romanesque style. It was, however, not finished and a secular vicar installed until 1120 AD. As to its consecration, that was not achieved until the last year of St Hugh of Lincoln’s life in 1200 AD.
St Hugh of Lincoln
That Saint, who was so closely connected with our church, was born in France near Grenoble, one of three children of the Lord Avalon, and trained for twenty years as a Carthusian monk of the Abbey of the Grand Chartreuse. It was he who was sent to England when, in about the year 1174, Henry II wished to introduce the Carthusians into this land. His rugged character and austerity of life commended themselves to the English king and led to his eventual enthronement in the Bishop’s chair in Lincoln. There are many stories of Hugh at the court of the king at Woodstock and at the great abbey at Eynsham. His interest in our slowly growing church in the fields led him to undertake the consecration, and a cross of interlaced circles, like a child’s exercise with a pair of compasses, incised on the western column of the tower is said to commemorate this act.
This same saint, bishop and builder, in 1194 caused north and south aisles to be added to the pre-conquest church of St Mary Magdalen a little down the road.
The Twelfth Century
As the visitor looks down from St Giles’ to the Saxon tower of St Michael at the North gate, he has to imagine that in the twelfth century there was nothing but these two churches between him and the city wall, but beyond and to the south of the Saxon tower there lay the town with a population of about 1000 people, crowded into the narrow streets, sanctified by fourteen churches, alive with market stalls, and the whole surrounded by the great wall, often repaired and in many parts rebuilt.
One change of ownership was, however, to affect St Giles’ and to last until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In 1138 the Empress Matilda, or Maud, and her son, Henry Plantagenet, soon to be king, then at war with Stephen, confirmed a grant of the church and all its lands and appurtenances to the newly created Godstow Priory – a convent of women which was a few years later to give shelter and a last resting place to Rosamund Clifford, the Rosa Mundi of Henry II.
St Giles’ Fair
It was in commemoration of this consecration that the St Giles’ Fair was founded to take place on the Monday and Tuesday after the Sunday following the Saint’s Day which is the first of September. The wide avenue in which the Fair is held seems always to have been there. It may have had a stream running down one side to join the town or Canditch. One of the earliest maps of Oxford, by Ralf Agas, in 1578 shows a pond at about the place where the war memorial is now, and the “Fender” outside St John’s College is probably the only remaining piece of roadside verge now remaining. The College purchased this piece and planted trees on it in 1577 and built the existing wall in the following year. Engravings in the 18th and 19th centuries show flocks of sheep and cattle making their way leisurely along it; the loyalist students paraded their in the occupation of Oxford in the Civil War; the territorial regiments billeted in the City in the Great War put it to the same use, and the engravings portray groups of University men in full academical dress and caps slowly perambulating or gathering in knots to talk.
The Growth of the Manor
At the time when the first church of St Giles’ was built, it stood in the open fields of Walton Manor until the conveyance to Godstow nunnery. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1535 the church and the lands passed into the hands of Dr George Owen of Godstow, a physician of Henry VIII. His son conveyed it in 1573 to Sir Thomas White, Lord Mayor of London, who in 1555 had refounded the Cistercian House of St Bernard as the College of St John the Baptist. White settled the church on his newly established College, which has presented vicars to the church ever since.
To go back to the 12th century. Slowly buildings began to collect round the church. In 1219, an ancient Bedlam, or Bethlehem Cottage, is recorded in a lease s standing just north of the church and between the two roads. Its site is now unknown. In the King’s Peace in the halcyon summers that preceded the Civil War, the munificence of William Laud added the renaissance glories of the Canterbury Quad to St John’s College, but there is little evidence of other development in the parish. When Charles I and Henrietta Maria visited Oxford in 1635 to see Laud’s new work, he may well have remarked on what his generation had learned to call the barbarous gothic church hidden away in the trees, for we know that he forestalled the tourist of today and walked through Oxford to visit the Bodleian. Whether the church played any part in the Civil War is not certain – there is a legend that Price Rupert was shot in the foot as he passed St Giles’ riding up the road to Banbury toward the Parliamentary lines without his armour; and another legend that during the Commonwealth a person hid behind the large table tomb n the churchyard to avoid soldiers who were searching for him and so escaped with his life.
After the civil war, there was an increase of house building on the plots leased by the City Council. By the end of the 17th century there were four inns to refresh the passer-by – the Pheasant Inn, the Eagle and the Child, the Royal Oak and the Lamb and Flag, the symbol of John the Baptist. The Judges Lodgings, now St John’s House, was built by Thomas Rowney in 1702 – four members of his family have memorials in the church – and eleven other houses with smooth ashlar fronts, parapets and pediments supported by pilasters with Greek capitals gave an air of sophistication to the street.
St Giles’ Street, however, like many a village street, was only one house thick. On the west, gardens and cultivated plots stretched away to meet the walls of Beaumont Palace. In 1771, following the Poor Law legislation of 1722-3. a House of Industry was built in what is now known as Wellington Square, to house the poor of the eleven United Oxford Parishes, but our parish escaped being rated because of the extent of its own charities. The path leading westward from the church that had been known as Black Boys Lane then became Workhouse Lane and it became Little Clarendon Street under the influence of the University and Clarendon Press set up in Walton Street in 1830. This development was followed by the Radcliffe Infimary and Wind Tower designed by Henry Keen in 1772, and standing to the north and west of our church.
People of the Parish
What kind of people came to live in this growing parish is difficult to say; one piece of evidence may be found in the report on sanitary conditions in Oxford in 1847. Although the terrible cholera epidemic of 1832 did not touch the parish of St Giles’, it was nevertheless continually wracked by the epidemic diseases of typhus, diarrohea, scarlet fever, measles and small pox. The particular places of greatest infection were the yards and courts in Observatory Street, St Giles’ Street, Adams Yard, Little Clarendon Street and Cook’s Yard Row. In these courts were observed heaps of manure and bones which were used in manufacture, so that in addition to the grand houses and Infirmary with their numerous servants there must have been a large population of low-grade workers, probably connected with the land and with commerce of the canal which reached Oxford by 1797.
The Nineteenth Century
When the common fields to the north of the town were enclosed by St John’s College in 1832 the gates were opened to the building of private houses. A Town Clerk of the Corporation built himself a large house, which is now the core of St Hugh’s College, and used to take the city treasure home with him at night accompanied by armed outriders. The infestation of the roads by footpads did not, however, deter the expansion of the city. In 1853-5 the Park Town Estate was designed and built by S. Lipscombe Seckham, the city architect and surveyor. He followed that with a design, also in the 1850?s, for what he called the Norham Manor Estate, showing some detached Italianate houses grouped round a new gothic church.
In June 1860, the college sold some land in lots for building along the west side of the Woodstock Road, but in the next month the first real step was taken to establish what came to be known -and admired- as Victorian North Oxford.
The Builders of North Oxford
A Witney-born architect and builder, William Wilkinson, 1819-1901, at the invitation of St John’s College, took over from Seckham the planning and development of the College property for houses for the expanding population of the city and produced a master plan for the layout of the Norham Manor Estate, which then consisted of what became Norhan Gardens, Norham Road and Fifield Road. Having made the plan, he built a number of the houses himself. By the end of the 1870?s most of the land between the River Thames on the west of the city and the River Cherwell was either built upon or subject to plans and proposals.
In this work he was associated with two nephews, Harry Wilkinson Moore, 1850-1915, and Clapton Crabb Rolfe, 1845-1907, who shared with him a native skill in design and a highly individual taste in architecture. Their plans for the layout of the streets of the Norham Manor and Walton Manor Estates showed a delicate feeling for space, so that many vistas led to a gap purposely left between the houses and filled with trees, with the result that the eye rested upon an apparently limitless horizon. Their designs for houses, some of which are left to us, have certain recognizable characteristics. The elevation is often off-centre; that is, a gable or tower is so placed as to throw away the regularity we associate with the buildings of the 18th Century; they used stone dressings framing red brick walls, and the divisions in the windows are stone columns with slender shafts and over-large carved capitals, and many niches are filled with stone carved decorations in a gothic style that contrasts oddly with the modern purpose of the house.
It is often said that this suburban growth was occasioned by the demand of the married fellows of the colleges for houses of their own, but the dates show that much of this building was provided earlier for those who were engaged in the professions and in commerce in the city. By 1869 Kingston Road was pegged out, by 1881 the builders had begun on St Margaret’s Road then called Rackham’s Lane, building from the east on the south side and turning back along the north to the west side. The interesting work done on the records of St John’s College by Dr Andrew Saint shows the successive dates of building as the houses run down one side of the road and up the other. Hayfield Road, named after a local innkeeper, was laid out by Wilkinson and Moore in 886 with houses for artisans and administered by the Oxford Industrial and Provident Land and Building Society. Our own parish buildings of St Giles’ were erected during 1887-1891.
The University Statute, however, that permitted Fellows of Colleges to marry and live out of College was passed in 1877 and had subsequently to be ratified by each college. Victorian North Oxford began, then, as a suburban expansion of the city along the healthy gravel terraces between the Thanes and Cherwell.
Because of the growth of the population, the ancient parish of St Giles’ suffered an amputation. Summertown had already become a parish on its own with a chapel of ease in 1833; the new parish of SS. Philip and James was carved out in 1863 and the first vicarage was built at the same time. Then followed St Margaret’s and finally St Andrew’s in 1906-7.
A word must be said about the two most characteristic parts of the parish – Wellington Square and Little Clarendon Street.
The origin of the Square was that in 1772 a House of Industry was built in the fields between the church and Walton Lane. This institution was to contain the poor of the United Parishes of Oxford. It took the place of the west side of the present Square, backing onto Walton Lane, which was a few yards west of the present Walton Street, and running 230 feet north to south. It was separated from Little Clarendon Street by a wall and the present Square garden seems to have been a garth within the open square formed by the three arms of the House. The legend that the garden was the burial place for cholera victims is not bourne out by the records.
Although the institution was put in the parish, the parish itself was not rated for the purpose, as were the remaining ten. The charitable bequests especially for the relief of the poor administered by St Giles’ were so numerous that they counted as relief of rates.
Even in 1849, according to the guide book of the period, the inmates of the House were becoming so numerous that its extension was being discussed. This did not happen, however, until William Wilkinson won an architectural competition for the new Oxford Workhouse in 1862 which was then built in Cowley Road. This was then followed by the demolition of the House of Industry and the erection of the north range of the Square, named after the Iron Duke, who had been the Chancellor of the University from 1844 to 1853.
When the Square was completed it was entirely residential except for Rewley House in the south east corner. This house was put up to accommodate St Anne’s, Rewley, a Church of England High School for girls, founded in the parish of St Thomas by the Rev. T. Chamberlaine, Canon of Christ Church and Tractarian Vicar of St Thomas, and also the founder of St Edward’s School, which also migrated from the parish of St Thomas via New Inn Hall Street to the William Wilkinson buildings in the Woodstock Road in 1873. Rewley House was then taken over by the County Library Department of the City Council and then became the headquarters of the Department of External Studies of the University.
Up to the end of the second world war, all the remaining houses in the Square were either privately occupied or were lodgings for students or other people employed in the city. Many of the houses “took in” students, some of whom would sit on their window sills in the summer weather and dangle their legs into the abyss below; at one corner was the famous college servant and landlord who looked so like Winston Churchill that he got his portrait in a national magazine; on a first floor nearby was the tutor who, as the advertisements in the Gazettte said, read Greek and Latin with candidates for Responsions; the vocal arts were represented by a teacher of singing who found the resonance of the Square rewarding.
During the war the W.A.A.F.S. moved into one house and brought great gaiety and the banging of car doors late into the night – this was still a time when students had to be in betimes. The army was followed at the end of the hostilities by Barnett House, moving up the road from 35 Beaumont Street then came the W.E.A. and the Department of External Studies and various teaching rooms for academic studies.
Steadily the University infiltrated the Square and many members of our congregation moved away. Administrative Departments took temporary refuge there while their concrete palace was being prepared in Little Clarendon Street. The remaining inhabitants then saw a change in the car parking pattern, in that the Square once was empty in the day but full of homecoming cars in the evening, then it changed so that cars filled the Square in the daytime and left it empty at night. The ranges on the east and north then fell to the bulldozer. Those who had lived there saw their old wall papers briefly exposed to view like bombed houses in wartime, before, in a cloud of dust, the hundred-year old terraces evaporated. But the Square as it had been for that hundred years must have left memories of their Oxford days in men all over the world.
Little Clarendon Street
In the years when this street was untouched by development it was a village street; too narrow for wheeled traffic, it invited the pedestrian to loiter and stray over the road. In the middle of the north side, where Somerville College now dominates the skyline, was a row of two-storey cottages with tiny front gardens and fences and white painted gates that children used to swing on, talking the while to their friends. On the south side the long blank wall, probably dating form 1832, never the canvass for painted slogans, hid the back gardens and dustbins of the houses in the Square.
There were shopkeepers who had been there man and boy for generations. Life was very simple behind those windows and counters. The tobacco shop was warmed -not heated- by an oil stove perilously near the front door, yet the only fire that
struck the street in the last war was in the timber yard surrounded by the stone walls of an ancient court. This event was so unusual that fireman ran up and down the street looking for the hydrant.
When a coffee shop, perhaps the first sign of impending change, opened its doors the conversations within ranged from the runners in the 2.30 to the philosophy of Wittgenstein, subjects which had been equally aired in the Duke of Cambridge before its improvement, but made more exciting by the flight of darts to the board on the other side of the bar.
It was said that the street provided all the necessities of life from greengroceries and milk to footware and gentlemens’ bespoke tailoring, and it lacked only books, banks and burials. Its present elevation to elegant fashion houses and boutiques for gear and the University offices has changed its character, but it is still a place for leisure, for dodging bicycles going up the one-way street and for the gossip and trade of the village.
St Giles’ Street
And now for the great artery of the parish -St Giles’ Street itself.
Wide enough for King Charles’ troops to drill in, for the brazen panoply of the Fair and for civic processions on Remembrance Sunday and other great occasions, it is one of the loveliest approaches to any city. Down this avenue or boulevard, as it has been called, have come a motley collection; Henry I from Woodstock to his palace at Beaumont Place; Cistercian monks to their academic house; Carmelite friars; the great scholar, Robert Grossteste, fresh from lecturing in the medieval schools; parliamentary men, driven from London by plagues or civil strife. Cardinal Wolsey rode this way to take farewell of his king, Elizabeth I, who had known Rycote as a girl prisoner, yet returned as Queen to Woodstock, and from there visited Oxford several times.
On her first visit in August 1566, she rode in form Woodstock and was met by the Chancellor of the University and the Heads of Houses; she was waited on at Summertown by the Mayor and Corporation, bearing suitable gifts, and then all united in a magnificent procession down St Giles’ and into the city where she prolonged her visit for seven days.
In a later year, 1830, traversing the crowded Fair the captured men of Otmoor were set free after their riot against the enclosure of their marshy kingdom.
In addition to the passage of royalty and great statesman the street became a route for the trade of the Midlands to the southern ports, and, as the commercial prosperity of the city increased, more 17th and 18th century houses raised their elegant facades behind the fringe of trees. But then the pattern familiar to us in the 20th century was set in motion.
As more modest houses were built beyond these stately environs, the Street itself became a channel through which the suburban dwellers had to pass to reach their destinations, and so in 1881 the first horse drawn tram was put on the road. It set out from Carfax at eight minute intervals and traveled through St Giles’ and the Banbury Road to a terminus at St Margaret’s Road, then known as Rackham’s Lane. It reached a further terminus in Summertown in 1898 – a slow journey. There was a branch line that swung round into Beaumont Street and then a further dizzy turn into Walton Street to a stopping place in Kingston Road. Many stories are told of trams leaving the rails and crashing into houses on the corners encountered in this rapid progress. The dangers of speed indeed. Among their instructions the drivers were warned to drive their horses slowly through a herd of cattle of a crowd of people and to stop their cars at the approach of a flock of sheep. This way of life came to an end when in 1913 the young Mr William Morris replaced the horse tram by his motor buses.
The changing character of St Giles’ was further demonstrated by the founding of the Oxford High School for Girls. This school began life with 29 pupils in 1875 in the Judge’s lodgings. These happy pupils had to be given half a day’s holiday every time the Assize Judge wanted to come into residence. This proved so disruptive of the girl’s studies that the school, now growing rapidly, moved into No. 38 for two years and in 1880 into No. 21 Banbury Road were it remained until 1957. The Banbury Road house was built for the school by the celebrated Oxford Architect, Sir Thomas Jackson, who at the request of the committee, added “the bell-cot and terracotta enrichments to the architectural features – all of which could be left out if the money for them could not be found”. It was to the school in this building that Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) came to lecture on philosophy to the girls and stayed to play written games on the black-board.
To the educational resources of the street there were added the new Ruskin Hall, the predecessor of Ruskin College for Working Men, founded in No. 21 St Giles’ by two American donors to provide working men with facilities for residence and
study. The college was moved in 1906 to the “old building of a timber merchant in Walton Street”, according to Henry Taunt, and is now graced by a handsome stone residence occupying nearly the length of Worcester Place.
Black Hall gave house to the first British Council Office in Oxford; it then formed part of Queen Elizabeth House when established at No. 20 St Giles’. Across the road the tall four-storeyed 19th century terrace building became occupied by the Christian Science Reading-Room, the Army Information Office and the beauties of the Secretarial College. To increase the diversification of this once residential street there can now be found on the west side the Office of the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, the Meeting House of the Society of Friends the Cartographic Department of the University Press and the office of the Diocesan Architect and Surveyor. Small wonder that the lights are on in the working day, but off at night, and that the spaces between the trees are the disc parking places for some thousand cars. It is estimated that some 5000 people pass through the south passage of St Giles’ Church every week day. The church no longer stands solitary in the empty fields, but it stands with one foot in the city and one in the northern suburb, hoping no longer to be an
outpost, but a meeting point for all who call themselves the citizens of Oxford.
First Keble College and then the Women’s Colleges had brought their academic influence into the parish in the 1870?s and set in motion the ideas that eventuated in the concept of the Bradmore Triangle for the extension of University institutions. This plan has not wholly been completed, but it has allowed the 12th century tower of St Giles’ Church to be overshadowed by the new Engineering Department and the fan-shaped building. All is not lost, however, for the lights in the lofty Engineering building on a foggy November evening bring a brilliance and gaiety into the scene. With our bells and these lights many a traveler is guided safely, as in the old days, through the parish of St Giles’, into his haven in the city.